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Feeling absence: a field observation

1 walked through your room.

With prying eyes and mind, I traced your essence, which wasn’t mine to trace.

Cluttered walls adorned with old memories and broken promises; overwhelmed by the faces and flowers frozen in carbonite looking down upon me, reminding me of your presence—an occupying vacancy forcing me to engage.

But the sun shining through the surrounding windows, enveloped by a clear blue sky as the building swayed beneath me— guiding me as 1 moved through your space.

Subtle reminders that I was not trespassing alone.

(Field Notes, National September 11 Memorial & Museum, October 2010)

The above recollection was recorded after field observation in the office space of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, which, prior to the museum’s opening in 2014, was located on the 20th floor of an office building across the street from the World Trade Center. The poetic response marks my first and only visit to a small, locked, and secluded room known as the “family room” that is normally deemed ‘out-of-bounds’ to non-family members and researchers such as myself. I first learned of this room—a separate space of remembrance and viewing platform of the memorial site—relatively early on in my research at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, but I gained access to the family room only after a year and a half of research at the site. When I was finally granted permission by the staff to enter the room—an ambition largely and, in hindsight, quite problematically driven by curiosity—it did not occur to me that I would not be able to ‘stomach’ the intensity of this off-limits space.

Lingering symptoms of vertigo connected to a very turbulent flight I had taken into New York’s JFK Airport the previous day magnified my experience of visiting the family room.3 Although 1 had been inside the 9/11 Memorial & Museum offices on numerous occasions and for lengthy durations, for whatever reason, this time 1 could distinctly feel the building’s quivers. I literally could not stand to be in the family room at that moment. My knees were buckling beneath me, and I had little control over my balance. Given that I had previously been in the building conducting research on windy afternoons and had even felt some of these building tremors, what was it specifically about my time in the family room that I could not ‘stomach’ on this particular day?

Throughout the process of data collection, I repeatedly listened to those who worked inside the Twin Towers describe how they could feel the building “sway” on a windy day. My father, who periodically worked out of the Twin Towers as an employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, shared similar recollections over the course of my research, on multiple occasions. These normal building movements, as described by former Tower workers, are typical of tall skyscrapers. Likewise, the degree to which these “movements” are consciously registered is so insignificant that building inhabitants are largely undisturbed by it throughout their workday.

During the course of my interviews with 9/11 Memorial & Museum staff members, 1 have also listened to numerous recollections of the weather report for the morning of September 11th: “a sunny, clear blue sky of an otherwise perfect late summer day.” Given the nature of what I study and where I was at this particular moment, these combined field experiences fashioned a kind of acquired memory inside the family room. Here, popular motifs of the Twin Towers and September 11, 2001 rematerialized through my body’s ‘sensing’ of the energetic presence within the space. Coupled with the visual and ephemeral overload of the family room, and the lingering somatic memory of my recent air travel, these recollections affectively conjured an emotional response within me: fear and anxiousness.

According to Hutchison, the persistence of trauma to affectively re-shape space, place, and time is “illuminated by ‘emotion and memory, by the anticipation of continuing distress, by anxiety, anger, and resentment, by ominous fears and future hopes’” (2016, 78, citing Morgan 2002). No longer just framed as historical memory, my embodied encounter within the family room transports 9/11 trauma into the present, transforming it into ‘lived memory’ via simulated experience. Here, the initial traumatic memory is remade afresh as it moves from representational to more-than-representational memory. Operating as a mnemonic bridge between past and present, trauma is no longer confined to the space and time of the past; rather, it exists presently through newly unfolding im/material registries.

In Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art, Jill Bennett (2005) theorizes “sense memory” as an aesthetic practice emerging from the artworks of trauma survivors. For Bennett, sense memories are conjured between artworks and gallery-goers as the viewer feels the emotional impact of the art. As she explains,

The imagery of traumatic memory deals not simply with a past event, or with the objects of memory, but the present experience of memory. It therefore calls for a theorization of the dynamic in which the [art] work is both produced and received—a theory, in other words, of affect.... As the source of a poetics or an art, then, sense memory operates through the body to produce a kind of ‘seeing truth’ [feeling

Affective pedagogies, emotional learning 57 truth?] rather than a ‘thinking truth’, registering the pain of memory as it is directly experienced, and communicating a level of bodily affect. (Bennett 2005, 24-26, emphasis added)

Sense memories manifest as viewers encounter traumatic imagery and are moved to register the suffering of others corporeally. Bennett is not arguing for the viewer’s re-traumatization vis-à-vis the consumption of trauma-inspired art (although this too can occur under certain conditions). Rather, she posits that the affective exchange, when successful, attempts to conjure new emotional responses within the spectator as he or she is incited to ‘empathically feel’ the trauma depicted by and archived within artistic expression (Bennett 2005; also see Huyssen 2003; and Lauzon 2008, on related arguments).

Bennett’s theory of sense memory is equally instructive for understanding the interchange of affective heritage in places of trauma. Underscoring the visitor’s emotional reception and recognition of traumatic pasts, sense memory captures the embodied experience of re-membering, or empathically feeling histories of violence. As Bennett explains elsewhere,

If emotions are not retrievable from memory, they are revivable', hence, we don’t remember grief or ecstasy, but by recalling a situation that produces those sensations we can produce a new bout of emotion.... Affect, properly conjured, produces a real-time somatic experience, no longer framed as representation. (Bennett 2006, 27, paraphrasing William James 1890, emphasis in original)

To Bennett, sense memory mediates the affective transmission of trauma from virtual to actual experience (see Deleuze 2002). This is not the same as having lived through trauma first-hand. Rather, knowledge of the traumatic past is acquired vis-à-vis our emotional experiences of empathic re-membering in the present.

In the above field observation, for example, the temporal and spatial distinctions required to separate past memories of the Twin Towers from my present engagement with the buildings’ remains became muddled in the space (and time) of the family room. Here, the lingering effects of turbulence combined with building tremors to mimic recollections described by research participants. Additionally, every square inch of the family room, with the exception of the viewing platform, was plastered with photographs and memorabilia of the 2,753 victims of the World Trade Center attacks. As a result, the room took on an unnerving, claustrophobic quality. Lastly, the weather conditions visible from the room’s only window overlooking Ground Zero revealed a perfect, clear-blue sky, as a strong afternoon sun filtered into the room. All of these conditions—vertigo, weather, location, and research focus—exacerbated the ghostly presence of lived and acquired memories to produce a perfect storm. The temporality of the past mapped itself onto the present, rendering here and there, then and now, self and other, momentarily indistinguishable. 1 te-membered the memories of respondents as if they were my own, as if they were happening to me now. Thus despite my efforts to capture my own sense of space and time within the family room, my senses were beyond me. I struggled to keep my composure amongst the room’s ephemeral contents. 1 left the family room shortly thereafter, and then the building altogether, as feelings of imminent trauma drew nearer with each gust of wind.

Trauma, as described by Resende and Budryte, “is a slayer of certainties, a shaker of truths: it irrevocably changes our spatial and temporal concept of the world and ourselves” (2014, 3). Conceptualizing affective heritage vis-à-vis my own embodiment, this section mapped feelings of place as I encountered presence and absence at the mnemonic site. Here, more-than-representational experiences of place generated an emotional awareness of the traumatic past, reframed as present feeling. In order to understand broader emotional responses to empathic re-membering at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, I now turn to the evocative spaces of Michael Arad’s Reflecting Absence. Specifically, I trace affective heritage throughout World Trade Center redevelopment as it is mobilized to elicit public feeling. To this end, I offer a brief summary of World Trade Center redevelopment in order to demonstrate the 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s reliance on and management of affective heritage at the site.

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